Fears for the Turtle Prompt Clandestine Rescue Mission

Marguerite Whilden releases a newly tagged diamondback terrapin.
Marguerite Whilden releases a newly tagged diamondback terrapin. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

About four times a month, Marguerite Whilden gets a call from her connection and drives her gold Jeep Cherokee to undisclosed locations to meet strange men. She pays $50, $100, even $1,000, cash. Then she places the plain brown boxes carefully in her truck and drives off.

Two clues betray her mission. Something in the Jeep smells fishy. And the words on the side of the box: "Live Seafood."

"This is really not good for my reputation, and it scares me at times," she says. "But it keeps these turtles alive."

With 20 volunteers and a $15,000 budget, Whilden labors to keep one of the Chesapeake Bay's most beloved species, the diamondback terrapin, out of the soup. Demand for the winsome state reptile, the University of Maryland mascot, comes from a new source these days. Asian gourmets eat turtles, believing they promote longevity -- everybody's, that is, but the terrapins'.

Over the past three years, terrapin harvests have surged. Tired of waiting for the state to react, Whilden launched her guerrilla-style rescue program in late 2003. She's bought 5,000 terrapins from a clandestine network of sellers, tagged them and returned them to the bay.

"I feel the stress on the species right now is increasing at an alarming rate," said Whilden, 52, an Annapolis resident and former fisheries employee at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Turtles were the most valuable thing fished in the Chesapeake."

It's an unorthodox, often unrewarding effort. Vandals have trashed her release sites, forcing her to keep them secret. Marine biologists and state natural resources officials, who eliminated her turtle program for children, question her methods and assessment of the creatures' decline. And during fishing season, her turtle tags do nothing to stop the harvest. Last month, three of her turtles wound up -- alive, pregnant and for sale even though they were above the legal size limit -- in a New York fish market.

Environmentalists agree that Whilden's effort is important, because she is striving to head off a species's decline before it turns critical. That's something that conservationists want to do but that state budgets often don't allow.

"Margie's raised awareness of issues involving terrapins in Maryland," said Richard Bohn, of the state's fisheries service. "The data would suggest that they're becoming a targeted market."

On a recent afternoon, Whilden stood over plastic pools swirling with 300 terrapins, their shells marked with camouflage-colored circles that look like eyes. Several periscoped above the surface, giving her a once-over.

Whilden perched a terrapin on an upended flowerpot. It craned around, legs churning, and hissed. She drilled two tiny holes in the mottled shell above its left rear leg and attached a yellow wire tag marked with a number.

"I don't want to do this," she said, wincing as the drill went in. "I would like the state to step up to the plate and manage the harvest."

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